Jaguars – A number of Amazonian peoples identify shamans as jaguars. Usually this is stated strongly (“shamans are jaguars”), not metaphorically (“shamans are like jaguars”). Western interpreters seem to find it difficult to accept the equation at face value, e.g., Gerardo Reichel-Domatoff seems to struggle to write: “Shamans and jaguars are thought to be almost identical, or at least equivalent, in their power, each in his own sphere of action, but occasionally able to exchange their roles.” However, a full appreciation of the nature of shamans in the region requires acceptance that the obvious meaning is intended: shamans are jaguars. Jaguars are not valorized as noble and elusive representatives of a pristine nature over against the cultural world of humanity. Nor, therefore, are shamans being celebrated as “close to nature,” “noble savages,” or exemplary environmentalists. The precise point of the claim is an equivalence rooted in predation: just like jaguars, the preeminent predators of Amazonia, so shamans are “predatory animists” (to paraphrase Carlos Fausto’s phrase). The choice is a straightforward one between being a predatory or being prey: everything is either one or the other (not only or always “essentially,” but in lived reality). By initiation and practice, shamans ally themselves with predators, especially jaguars but also deities and spirits that seek to eat human flesh or drink human blood. The accusation that they are or may be cannibals has been made both by indigenous people and by European or Euro-American observers. However, from their perspective as jaguars, they are not cannibals. Fausto also notes that the importance of blood and tobacco in Amazonia is almost precisely the inverse of the neo-shamanic marginalization or ignorance about both.

In Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s writings, another aspect of thejaguar–shaman relationship is central. Shamans are people (humans or other-than-human persons) who can shift their perspective to see as others (predators or prey) see. They see beneath the diverse physical forms to the underlying, real cultural realities. That is, most humans see jaguars as animals who eat raw meat, but shamans can see them as they see themselves: as humanoid persons who eat cooked food as cultured beings. They can also see humans as jaguars see them: as prey. Shamans may then combat the predatory enemy approaching in the form of a jaguar or they may form an alliance and prey among humans. Failure to appreciate these resonances of claims about jaguar–shaman relationships makes it difficult to explain the full ambiguity and danger of the role played by shamans.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007